Women Can Have It All, Just Not at the Same Time

Reprinted from the De Pree Center.

It is almost 60 years since Betty Friedan first started encouraging women to make choices about their lives. Her 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique is widely celebrated as sparking the second wave of American feminism. In that book she described a problem faced by many women at the time:

The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning [that is, a longing] that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban [house]wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”

In the book she raised the issue of women giving up on careers to enable their husbands to succeed, and then some of them being left in the lurch by divorce 15 years later.

Most women in the West, particularly those with privilege, have benefitted from the movement that Friedan headed up. She advocated powerfully for equal choice between women and men in terms of career, financial treatment and legal access; most of which we take for granted today.

However, so much freedom of choice has also led to enormous pressure on women. An unintended consequence of such advocacy is that many women have found themselves in a terrible bind: exhausted and harried as they try to maximise a career, bear and raise children, and stay at the forefront of education, as well as enjoying a satisfying set of hobbies. Have you felt that pressure? I certainly have.

For a while this was kept under the surface, but it started to bubble up until at a conference Betty Friedan was asked whether women truly can have it all. Her reply was, “Women can have it all, just not all at the same time.”

In a similar dynamic, biblical wisdom emphasises the importance of rhythms and seasons. As the beautiful poem in Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.” There is wisdom in recognising the season we are in, and seeking God’s guidance for the transition to a new season in the home, neighbourhood, work, or a combination of those.

We can also be blinded by our fiercely individualistic society and not recognise the communal aspects of work, making meaning, and raising children. We were never meant to do all of this alone.

Take for example the book of Ruth in the Bible, and the way that Ruth, a valiant woman, works and provides for her mother-in-law. The story begins with two grieving women. Naomi has lost her husband and two sons, and now decides to return home to her village of Bethlehem. Ruth, herself a widow, refuses to abandon Naomi:

Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.

Ruth 1:16-17

When they arrive in Bethlehem, Ruth goes to work in the field to provide food for them. Her loyalty and hard work catches the eye of a distant relative, Boaz, who instructs that she be protected, and rewarded with food.

God’s work in shaping and forming Boaz sees him taking up his responsibility as a kinsman-redeemer to provide for the destitute family of a relative, and he takes Ruth as his wife, agreeing to provide for Naomi. Ruth has a son, Obed, whom she dedicates to Naomi. Naomi takes this son and cares for him.

We cannot assume that Ruth stops her work external to parental caregiving during this time. In fact, there is a strong correlation between the Proverbs 31 (verses 10-31) woman and Ruth, since both are referred to as eset hayil, a valiant woman. Both of them have a husband who is respected at the city gate (Ruth 4:1-12; Proverbs 31:23).

Like the Proverbs 31 woman, Ruth is characterised by her hard work and good nature: “she provides food for her family” and “opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy” in her selfless care of Naomi.

I like to think, recognizing that Ruth also bears God’s image, Boaz empowers her take up the sort of entrepreneurial activity described in Proverbs 31:16-17:

She considers a field and buys it;
out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously;
her arms are strong for her tasks.

While we might feel exhausted when we consider Ruth and the Proverbs 31 woman because of the sheer expanse of their work, there is no sense of striving. In fact, Proverbs 31:25 tells us that this woman “laughs at the days to come”. For both these women, not all the work is done at the same time.

In the Proverbs 31 text, we do not see any restriction in this woman’s activity after childbearing, indeed commentator Bruce Waltke points out that by the woman’s economic contributions (selling handiwork, trade and real estate), the husband is freed to take up a voluntary magisterial role at the town gate (Proverbs 15-31, p. 239).

What is useful is to see that all the work we do is valued by God, in whatever sphere of influence. In this, it’s more about the quality and character of whatever it is we decide to do. Women leaders in the past have sometimes lacked the support or opportunity to flourish in their leading. They have felt confined to the domestic realm, or have traded the influence they would have preferred to have in their children’s lives, because they felt their work responsibilities denied them choice.

As researchers Padavic, Ely and Reid have pointed out, “Only when women and men can pursue their lives so that the demands and gratifications of one domain – whether work or home – need not take precedence over the other will women achieve workplace parity with men” (“Explaining the Persistence of Gender Inequality: The Work–family Narrative as a Social Defense against the 24/7 Work Culture” in Administrative Science Quarterly 2020, Vol. 65(1)61-111).

So, how can we have it all? Ecclesiastes, Proverbs 31 and Ruth show us that it is not so much what we accomplish, but who we are becoming in the process that matters most. And we do not need to have it all at once, there are seasons for all the work – paid and unpaid – which we might do. What is needed is wisdom and a network of supportive relationships, to enable us to flourish as female leaders in home, neighborhood and work.

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Kara Martin is the author of Workship: How to Use Your Work to Worship God, and Workship 2: How to Flourish at Work. She is also a lecturer with Mary Andrews College. Kara has worked in media and communications, human resources, business analysis and policy development roles, in a variety of organizations, and as a consultant. Kara has a particular passion for integrating our Christian faith and work, and helping churches connect with the workers in their congregations. She is currently conducting research on how to effectively equip workplace Christians to integrate their faith and work.

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